For over 40 minutes on Tuesday evening, it looked like Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr were set to crash out of the AFC Champions League at the play-off stage as they trailed Dubai's Shabab Al Ahli 2-1 in front of 20,000 fans at their home Al Awwal Park.
The ramifications of such an elimination would have been massive for everyone involved; Asia’s top club competition has never seen a player of the stature of Ronaldo. Yes, Japan’s Vissel Kobe brought in Andres Iniesta in their run to the semi-finals in 2020, and there was a variety of big names representing Chinese clubs over the past few years, but none comes close to the impact and popularity of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and the most followed human on Instagram.
For Al Nassr to miss out on Champions League football for a second consecutive year, having invested in not only Ronaldo, but also the likes of Sadio Mane, Marcelo Brozovic and others, would have been a huge blow.
And for Saudi football, currently sitting at the top of the AFC domestic competitions rankings and having invested heavily in their objective of becoming one of the top 10 leagues in the world, to have anything less than the maximum allowed four teams in the group stage would have been an embarrassment.
To the relief of all those parties, it was substitute Ayman Yahya who emerged from the bench to set up two late goals for Sultan Al Ghannam and Anderson Talisca before Ronaldo assisted Brozovic for the fourth, as Al Nassr turned the game around within the span of 10 minutes to book their place alongside compatriots Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Fayha in the group stage.
In its last edition before AFC competitions revert to a three-tier system, the AFC Champions League will have not just Ronaldo, but Neymar and Karim Benzema among a collection of the Saudi Pro League’s big names. They would have liked to also see the star-studded Al Ahli in the competition, but the Saudi contingent is instead rounded off by debutants Al Fayha, another miracle made by Serbian coach Vuk Rasovic, who led them to winning the King’s Cup final, having previously taken Al Faisaly to the same final and repeated the trick twice with UAE’s Al Dhafra in the President Cup.
With its summer spending on new signings dwarfing most Asian leagues combined, the Saudi Pro League will be primed to cement its recent dominance of club football in the continent. The 2021 edition of the AFC Champions League saw that dominance come to its peak with Riyadh rivals Al Hilal and Al Nassr contesting the semi-final of the competition, the latest stage that two teams from the same region can reach due to its East-West separation structure.
The Saudi hegemony is in large part thanks to Al Hilal, who have made it their raison d’etre, reaching the final in five of the last nine editions (2014, 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2022), and winning the title on two of those occasions, to add to their two earlier titles under the Asian Club Championship name in 1991 and 2000. Al Ittihad, too, have a pair of continental trophies to their name, having won it back-to-back in 2004 and 2005 and reached the final in 2009, while Al Ahli marked their name as finalists in 2012.
Now, more than ever, challenging Saudi clubs will become a nearly impossible task as Qatar’s Al Duhail found out last term, when they made their way to the semi-finals only to be thrashed 7-0 by Al Hilal.
A post-World Cup lull covers Qatari football which saw two of its representatives, Al Wakrah and Al Arabi, eliminated at the play-off stage at the hands of Uzbek duo Navbahor and AGMK respectively, while in the UAE, the highs of 2015 and 2016 when Shabab Al Ahli and Al Ain reached back-to-back finals seems a distant memory as the UAE Pro League slipped from top of the continental rankings in 2017 to sixth in the most recent list, surrounded by the likes of the fallen Chinese Super League and the cash-strapped Iranian Pro League.
Ahead of Thursday’s draw at the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur. Rather than a real chance at winning the competition, fans of Asian clubs will be most excited by the prospect of seeing the likes of Ronaldo, Neymar, Benzema and others play in their cities. Places like Dushanbe, Isfahan and Qarshi have rarely if ever seen names of this magnitude, and that will be the true legacy and extent of the Saudi football revolution in Asia.